Recommitting to the Protection of Human Rights Defenders – Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders at the UNHRC 52nd session

Author:Elias Tissandier-Nasom


By: Elias Tissandier-Nasom

On the 15th of March 2023, UN delegates met in Geneva to discuss the situation of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) with Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur to the UN on HRDs. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders, adopted in 1998 after 14 years of negotiations. The declaration was adopted by consensus, marking a strong commitment to the protection and the support of HRDs worldwide. While this declaration is not binding on states, it is based on principles and rights that are contained in other binding documents such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The interactive dialogue featured an introductory address by the Special Rapporteur, followed by statements and questions from member states and follow up responses from the Special Rapporteur.

The Special Rapporteur highlighted the importance of celebrating and publicly recognizing the successes of defenders over the last 25 years. She particularly emphasized the remarkable work done around the world by women defenders who have fought for fundamental causes such as sexual and reproductive rights, to end forced marriage and child marriage, or the end of the distribution of non-consensual sexual content. Similarly, she commended the work of children defenders, indigenous defenders who fought for the protection of their land, LGBTQIA+ defenders, those fighting to free wrongly-jailed individuals, and the defenders who helped support victims and their families in the Wuhan area during and after the COVID-19 outbreak. She made a strong statement about the incredible advances HRDs can achieve by working together and receiving the support they require. She called for the respect of defenders who, even in the face of adversity and dangerous situations, keep going tenaciously. She called for states to recognize the crucial role of defenders in upholding peaceful and fair societies.

Altogether, the member states showed a strong commitment to the protection of defenders and their willingness to provide support to ensure they are able to continue their work safely and efficiently. A large number of states supported the position of the Special Rapporteur and commended the achievement and bravery of defenders worldwide. Multiple states presented national and collective initiatives to support the work of HRDs and ensure they are able to work safely. Particularly, a number of states, including Ecuador and France, reflected positively on the call of the report of the Special Rapporteur to the analyze and regulate the relation between protection of defenders and businesses. A document on HRDs and businesses seems to be the next step in creating more accountability for violations of human rights of defenders at the UN level. Most states’ questions to the Special Rapporteur were linked to guidance on good practices when it came to supporting human rights defenders’ work and protecting their human rights. The representative of the European Union also highlighted the importance in this regard of answers which focus not only on HRDs presence on the ground, but also online as new technologies are creating new fields for human rights violations.
Recommendations by the Special Rapporteur in response to those statements mostly focused on the importance of listening to women defenders and providing child-friendly information, procedures, and effective remedies for child defenders. She emphasized that child HRDs are the future and that need to be listened to accordingly, but also protected more extensively due to the extra challenges they might face due to age discrimination (and other intersectional discriminations). In more practical terms, she made a point about the necessity for states to create flexible visa systems for human rights defenders to allow them to travel to and from their country of origin. This is vital for defenders to be able to pursue their work on the ground while still being able to seek refuge in another state when the situation becomes too dangerous. The system of asylum and international protection in place today is not suited to HRDs who do not wish to obtain refugee status, but rather want to return to their country of origin when the storm has passed. As a matter of fact, she highlights that out of 900 defenders that she interviewed, only 6 voluntarily applied for asylum.

A handful of states were doubtful of the content of the report and of the statements made by the Special Rapporteur, particularly the Russian Federation and China. The representative for the Russian Federation made a statement relating to the situation in Ukraine. He stated that acts of terrorism are being committed against the Russian Federation by Ukrainian nationals who, hiding behind the title of human rights defenders, are getting complete impunity. The Russian Federation recognized the importance of HRDs but states that their activity should be within the limits of the law and their protection should not be used to cover unlawful acts, particularly those of a political character. The representative for China brought a similar statement insisting that no group of person should be given impunity from the law. China reiterated that if one breaks the law, punishment should ensue, and that no one should be allowed to do whatever they feel like under the effigy of a human rights defenders status. Altogether, China and the Russian Federation called for the UN to stop infringing upon national sovereignty, as they are only “protecting the principles of the rule of law” by enforcing punishment when said-defenders break the law.

The response of the Special Rapporteur to those statements was a strong one. She addressed every state individually after reminding the room that all states have made a strong commitment to the rule of law, but that laws must be fair and respect international standards. She stated that the UN and the international community is not calling for unachievable perfection, but merely for states to respect the obligations which they have signed. Too many states are still criminalizing HRDs and thus, are directly in breach of international standards. She further highlighted the fact that not one state submitted an input on the report, even though she personally reached out to states such as the Russian Federation, China, Iran, and Cuba to start a dialogue. All the objections that were presented today would have been welcome in a constructive input prior to the session, as she had kindly requested long before.
To China, she began by commending the efforts and successes of the country in eradicating poverty and violence against women, but spoke of a ‘disaster’ when it came to the protection of HRDs, particularly recalling numerous cases of defenders who were jailed for over 10 years for peacefully working towards the realization of human rights in China.
To the Russian Federation she stated that “I am sorry that we cannot be friends on account of your attitude”. She recalled the shutdown of memorial centers and over 130,000 websites, and denounced the “appalling” treatment and targeted killings of defenders by the Russian Federation abroad over recent years.
She then made a quick address to the Iranian representative deploring the fact that she supported the position of her government in view of the atrocious violations of human rights committed against HRDs after 18 cases were brought to the attention of the delegation by the Special Rapporteur this past year. Similarly, she addressed Cuba directly to underline the necessity for the state to better its stance on the protection of HRDs and freedom of expression and association in the same way it had recently drastically improved upon economic rights.

In her final address, the Special Rapporteur provided general recommendations to states in bettering their practices when it came to human rights defenders. She mentioned that states are always willing to help human rights defenders as long as they are not acting within their national borders or against their government. She advised that every state start the work at home, by providing support and effective protection for defenders acting on their own territory. She reminded the delegates of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ Article 1 which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Human rights defenders are the ones that breathe life into this declaration and are at the forefront of defending the essence of human equality and dignity. Recalling that, if state’s interests lie in building fair and peaceful societies, they should see HRDs as allies and not as enemies. This allyship ought to start with public acknowledgment of the work of defenders, human rights education in school, and public campaigns in the name of human rights. Finally, she concluded her address beautifully by urging all persons everywhere to become human rights defenders themselves, by doing whatever is in their personal capacity to improve the life of others around them.